Biennale of Sydney

Préfète Duffaut

Duffaut Préfète 20X24 #86 (1982) Collection of Galerie d"Art Nader, Haiti. www.galerienaderhaiti.com

Préfète Duffaut

Born 1923 in Jacmel, Haiti
Died 2012 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti


Préfète Duffaut had a difficult childhood as his mother passed away when he was 12 years old. He was a shipbuilder, artist, poet, and a mystic. Duffaut started painting after a call he had in one of his dreams.

A beautiful young woman, identified as the Virgin or his own wife, came to him and said ‘Préfète, when you wake up in the morning, I want you to start painting.’ His paintings vividly depict his dreams, usually imaginary cities and boat-filled harbours in the bay of Jacmel. His art manifests his poetic sense, mystical tendances and broad imagination. He was one of the most notable early attendees of the Centre d’Art, Port-au-Prince, founded by Dewitt Peters in 1944. During this time, Duffaut was one of the artists commissioned to paint murals in the Saint Trinity Cathedral of Port-au- Prince, which was later destroyed by the earthquake of January 2010. Duffaut has exhibited in many museums and art galleries internationally.

Préfète Duffaut is of the first generation of popular artists who joined the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. Like many of them, he claims that his artistic career began following the intervention of a superior power.  In his case, it was an apparition that occurred while, as a young man, he was helping his father to build a boat. He recalled making a deal with the Virgin Mary, agreeing to make paintings of his community if she ensured that his career as an artist would allow him to live decently. This feminine figure, often represented in his paintings, is popularly interpreted as Mary, the Holy Virgin of the Catholic faith. However, it could also be the representation of Erzulie, the Voudo divinity.

Inspired by the topography of the coastal city of Jacmel, Duffaut’s art is comprised of certain recurring details: the drum, a ritual instrument; the ship named ‘Immamou’, a boat within Vodou mythology that carries spirits and brings deceased believers to the continent of their ancestors; the blue sea, domain of Agoue, the captain of Immamou and an ‘lwa’, often associated with Erzulie.  Beyond subject matter, the formal elements comprising his paintings also support the notion that the artist’s practice is closely linked to Vodou.

Symmetry is one formal element common to many of Duffaut’s works. Their compositions are formed by assemblages of geometric elements to create a system of colours, lines, defining circles and triangles that allow the viewer to read each element as part of a whole. The works of Préfète Duffaut are not reproductions of the outside world, but organisations of signs that refer to the techniques and mentalities within the society to which he belonged. In his paintings image and symbol coexist, bringing complexity and diversity to his oeuvre.

Courtesy Galerie Nader, Pétion-Ville, Haiti